For the past two days I attended a settlement course in a very gorgeous hotel. It’s rather late, considering I have been here since last June and know most of the absolute essentials, but it’s still worth to attend, and I got to see new people and had free lunches, yay!
The course is done to help people settling nicely in a host country. Unsettling employees and partners could jeopardize their posting, their unhappiness threaten their productivity because they are worried about other matters rather than their jobs, and the company could loose their valuable resources. So 2 days course in a very nice hotel with free lunches is worth spent.
For those who just come to a new place, or even those who repatriate back after spending years in other countries, this course is very helpful. In fact there were two Scots in our course and even they found many things they didn’t know, and lots of things have changed since they left.
The abovementioned absolute essentials topic covers subjects like transportation, bank, post office, TV, garbage arrangement, and other boring stuffs, which are indeed essential when we just land in a strange land and don’t even know that we have to pay a TV license or how to get the internet connection, or which rubbish that goes to which bin, or understanding postal system. It might seem too easy, but I know a true Scotsman who came back from 4 years overseas posting, and was confident enough to post very important documents without realizing that the system and the pricing has changed, and ended up having constant stomach ache for the next month when he found out his documents were sent to the central post office in Dublin because he didn’t put enough stamp on the envelope and had to wait until they return it, prepare that they will be gone forever. Of course this Scostman got an earful lecture from me every single day, until he got the documents back.
But the first subject is the most interesting one for me. Although I am sure that everybody does it perpetually, it is done subconsciously. We had an exercise which helped us to understand that we can look at the same thing and we can form totally different opinions. We were given an image with the word saying “Jesus is the ONLY way”, and I immediately said it’s plain silly. If it’s said “Jesus is the Way”, I would respect it as the choice of belief. But inserting only in the sentence implies that other religions are wrong, and I wouldn’t respect people who’d think that those don’t worship their God will go to hell. If a person comes to me and tells me that I am right because I am a moslem and I shouldn’t shake my friends’ hands on Christmas, I would react the same way as I did to Jesus-is-the-only-way thing, because I believe everybody is equal before God and who are we to judge what’s best for others. When the image of Ka’bah appeared, some participants associate it with conflict (as Ka’bah is a symbol of Islam, and as people know, Islam doesn’t advert themselves in the right way and is always portrayed with conflict, terror and war), while I – as a moslem – simply want to go there. When the picture of three blonde girls drinking and dancing appeared, one associated the picture with excessive drinking habit of the young people in Western countries, while I said I miss it (they party, not the excessive drinking).
We can’t help to jump into a quick generalization, and put people into boxes and labels because it’s our way to figure them out. But our label and generalization is based on our background and experience which has shaped our perception. The exercise helped us to realise that yellow is yellow, but to some, whenever they see yellow they will think about sunflowers, happiness and carefree spirits, while Wikipedia states it commonly (?) represents age, cowardice and jealousy.
Defining our cultural icons, values, and understanding what has made us as a nation will help us to understand others. At first we will be shocked to see how different people behaving, and we immediately generalized, box and label them as an instant response. But we are blessed with brains which can help us to suspend our judgment and understand that they are simply different and most of the times don’t hold the same values as we do.
Simple gesture like putting our hand on hips, in Indonesia, will be considered rude, especially if you do it towards your senior, but it’s ok to shout at waiters to grab their attention. It is vice versa in Western countries. Americans will have to consciously remind themselves to whisper towards British who are famous for speaking so soft sometimes we barely could hear them. Dutch must remind themselves to use ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in almost every sentence. Brits should realise that Dutch are not rude, their language is more direct than English. Yes doesn’t necessarily means yes in Asian countries and although it could be frustrating to Westerners, it’s part of Asian culture of saving-face, and it doesn’t mean people are incompetence or hypocrite. I remember I was shocked the first time when my schoolmates in Sydney addressed our lecturers on first name basis, and for the first three months I kept calling them “Sir”. Tattoo on Maorian face is a manifestation of his accomplishment, but we will be uneasy to see a Westerner with a tattoo on his face in the tube to Paddington station because most of us associate tattoo with rebellious behavior.
Some of us, after quick generalization and labeling, are willing to suspend their judgment and along the way will find out that their method is not always working. People are basically the same everywhere, there are good and bad ones, regardless their religion, race, age, and sex. I would like to point at a particular post from this lady, who wrote about her own generalization towards Jews due to her cultural background, and how she perceives them now. On the other hand, you and I could laugh together at this post which the writer thinks he knows everything about Javanese girls (and Javanese culture) just because he had seen, met, dated, and slept with few of them. The guy obviously has put people (Javanese girls) in a certain box with a certain label, but he didn’t go further to suspend his judgment and use his brain to realise that few hundreds girls cannot represent other millions whom he hasn’t met. He hadn’t met me, obviously, for sure!
When we understand both of our and other cultures, we will find out that there are things that we wouldn’t bend, the important values that define us and our culture. But there are things we could, would and should compromise. We can’t sustain Indonesian rubber time mode in most Western countries; 10 minutes late to turn up at the restaurant and your table will be given to someone else. But as Asian and Indonesian we still strongly hold onto our family values, no matter how far our parents away from us are, or no matter how old we are now. My Asian friend would have her mother for 6 months and another her father for 2 months, staying with them in Aberdeen. On the other hand, my European friends say having guests in their house for 2 weeks is more than enough to drive them crazy and they could refuse their own parents to visit them if the time isn’t right, something that most Asians wouldn’t ever think of.
So I hope the waiter would be patience enough to understand that I don’t know if waving to him is normal for me and I don’t know that the gesture is rude in UK. And I hope I be more patient toward a Chinese girl seating on the next table who chews loudly, because although it’s rude for most Indonesians, it’s not rude in Chinese culture, it’s even considered as an appreciation towards the food and the host.